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N.C. Officials Examine Fraud Charges In Disputed Congressional Election


More than a month after the new Congress was sworn in, a House seat remains in dispute. In North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready in an unofficial tally. But the vote was marred by allegations of fraud and misconduct, and the state's board of elections began public hearings Monday. Investigators are saying a campaign operative may have run an illegal absentee ballot scheme. NPR's Miles Parks has been covering voting and covering this case from when it began, and he joins me this morning. Hi, Miles.


GREENE: So these are very serious charges. I mean, like, a calculated effort, a scheme, investigators are calling it. Describe exactly what they're charging.

PARKS: Yeah. So the investigation is centered on a man named McCrae Dowless who was working as a political contractor for Republican Mark Harris' campaign. Dowless is alleged to have been paying people to register voters, and then also paying people to pick up ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina. What's still unclear is whether Dowless turned in all the ballots he and his team collected, or whether those were manipulated in any way. The state board did say that it was a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme in the hearing yesterday. The numbers in the county where Dowless worked, also, were tilted towards Harris in a way that made the state board really suspicious.

GREENE: So what is it like in a hearing that is dealing with election fraud? I mean, are there actually people testifying, or are we just talking about, like, numbers and what happened to ballots?

PARKS: It looks a lot like a courtroom without a judge. And it's been really emotional. The witness who took up most of the day yesterday was actually Dowless' former stepdaughter. Her name is Lisa Britt, and she said Dowless paid people to pick up people's ballots. She also said she even filled out some ballots for the down-ballot races for people who left them blank. She was clearly really emotional testifying against someone who she still feels like is a father figure. She kept saying she never thought her father would have her do anything that was illegal. The most dramatic moments of the day came, though, when Britt was talking about how Dowless actually tried to interfere in the state's investigation. Britt said Dowless reached out to her as recently as last week and even tried to tell her what to say at yesterday's hearing.

GREENE: So moving forward, I mean, could this hearing trigger a whole new election? And would the Republican Mark Harris be allowed to run again, or, what could happen here?

PARKS: So a new election is definitely a possibility. The board is made up of three Democrats and two Republicans, and they need to come to some sort of bipartisan agreement at the end of the hearing to either hold a new election or to certify Harris. If they don't, then Harris is automatically certified, but that certification goes to the U.S. House to either approve it or deem that seat vacant. In terms of Harris being able to run again, the state does require a new primary election if a new general election is called. So he would be allowed to run, but his primary victory last year was close, anyway. So the question is, would he be able to get this Republican support in a Republican primary with all this baggage that's following him at this point?

GREENE: And I mean, you cover voting, Miles. Is there anything we can learn from how this is playing out in one district in North Carolina that might teach us some lessons about, you know, national elections? Because there's a pretty big one coming next year (laughter).

PARKS: I think what's really interesting here is the fact that this potential fraud is related to vote-by-mail ballots, which is something that's on the rise in the U.S. It's unclear whether this case is going to put a hamper on those efforts, people voting by mail more across the country going forward.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Miles Parks covering this hearing yesterday on charges of fraud in a race in North Carolina that still, a couple months after the midterm elections, has not been decided. Miles, thanks a lot.

PARKS: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.